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January 22, 2008

Don't Expect An EO

The Bush administration will probably not issue an executive order canceling the 9,000 earmarks in the omnibus spending bill, the New York Times reports, as the White House does not want to have a war with Congress in 2008. Instead, they will review each request line by line and may demand support for each in writing from its sponsor, proving that the money actually got requested by its beneficiary and it will be spent as intended. This will disappoint many who saw this as an final opportunity for this administration and the GOP to reclaim some credibility on fiscal discipline:

President Bush is unlikely to defy Congress on spending billions of dollars earmarked for pet projects, but he will probably insist that lawmakers provide more justification for such earmarks in the future, administration officials said Monday.

Fiscal conservatives in Congress and budget watchdogs have been urging Mr. Bush to issue an executive order instructing agencies to disregard the many earmarks listed just in committee reports, not in the text of legislation.

More than 90 percent of earmarks are specified that way, not actually included in the texts. White House officials say such earmarks are not legally binding on the president.

Congressional leaders of both parties, who are scheduled to meet on Tuesday with the president, said Mr. Bush would provoke a huge outcry on Capitol Hill if he ignored those earmarks.

Some people have tried to see the silver lining in the failure. Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform sees the approach as a possible way for Bush to set a precedent for dealing with "the most egregious earmarks", and one that could be demanded of presidential candidates to follow in the future. It also keeps the agencies themselves from getting stuck in the middle between the White House and Congress in a political battle that would leave few unmarked by the political strife.

If Bush demands support in writing for these earmarks, that might also have a beneficial effect. These pork projects got dropped into non-legislative text, and so have no sunlight on sponsors or their connections to the beneficiaries. Forcing the individual sponsors to supply justification, even just on the sillier and "egregious" earmarks, will push the porkers into the light -- and provide their opponents with some ammunition in the next election. The earmarks may not be worth the risk in most cases and might get shelved.

That depends, however, on the Bush administration's tenacity and dedication to eliminating earmarks. So far, we haven't seen much evidence of either on this issue. An EO would have forced this and future Congresses to follow their own rules and earmark with greater transparency, and it wouldn't require another bureaucracy to manage it. Somehow I doubt that the Bush administration has the patience or even the inclination to force legislators to provide explicit and open support for even the worst of the earmarks in the package.


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